“She walks in beauty like the night. …”
Spock greets Lieutenant Uhura’s humor with Byron’s line at one point in their many years together on “Star Trek” adventures. Now, this was way back when Leonard Nimoy’s Spock occasionally laughed, but bear with me here:
The foreigner knew a queen when he saw one.
And what a queen. Those boots. That dress. That’s eye makeup. That glorious voice.
Nichelle Nichols, the woman who gave birth to Uhura, died last week at 89 years of age. Her contribution to the American collective imagination — whether on the television screen or in real life — cannot be overstated.
With her hair out of place and fabulous earrings falling out, she was a Communications Officer, fourth in command of the Federation starship USS Enterprise in the 23rd century.
She was the embodiment of a declaration splashed across billboards decades later: Black People Are in the Future.
When “Star Trek” debuted on NBC in September 1966, Uhura’s presence struck viewers like a thunderbolt. At the time, Black people were fighting very literally and ultimately for the independence of their bodies and souls. It was the era of marches, freedom rides and sit-ins. Malcolm X was already dead. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. still preaching.
Black people of all abilities and professions were still being relegated to the corners of restaurants, hotels and offices. Black women, if they were ever mentioned in the media at all, were portrayed as loud, undignified troublemakers, overweight wives and nannies who seemed to delight in talking to white children.
Out of this madness, Uhura appeared.
Vision in red and black. Beautiful, smart as hell and not interested in anyone’s nonsense.
Her name means freedom in Swahili. And for a generation, she symbolized that: the freedom to be seen and be appreciated for your talents, rather than being seen as a liability because of your color.
I’m too young to have seen “Star Trek” on NBC; I wasn’t born until the 1970s. I came to the franchise when I was in college in Philadelphia in the early 1990s. Philly TV was a Trek haven at the time: “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” were in their first run, older episodes of “Next Generation” were already in syndication five nights a week , and the original series ran every Saturday evening.
At first, I mainly complained about the things Uhura didn’t do. She was not one of the Big 3 (Kirk, Spock and McCoy), so she was rarely in a spotlight role. This was true of women in general in the original series, of course, and was not fully resolved as a franchise problem until “Star Trek: Discovery,” decades later. (Yes, I know that the USS Voyager was commanded by a woman. And I also know that her command was questioned and challenged far more often than any captain at that time. She was not anyone trying to fight Jean-Luc Picard like that. Capt. Kathryn Janeway was done wrong.)
As I entered the workforce myself, I gained a healthier appreciation for Uhura. I learned many times, you just have to show up prepared and do your job and not expect to be the person out front or the person who is patted on the back. Be prepared to lead if you have to, but don’t overdo it. Run your business, not your mouth.
And I thought about what Nichols has experienced over the years, being nurtured from being part of this hopeful, exciting vision for the future but still fighting for screen time and inclusion in the 1960s present. (The inconsistency was not lost on her; as she often recalled, she had planned to leave the series after the end of the first season and return to Broadway until “her biggest fans” spoke – a somewhat famous sermon named Martin Luther King -. from her.)
After the show ended, Nichols continued to be a catalyst for inclusion. In the 1970s, she toured universities and professional organizations nationally, encouraging the country’s top women and men of color who were scientists, engineers and mathematicians to apply for the astronaut program. And they listened.
Charles Bolden, a former Marine Corps major general who flew on four space shuttle missions and was a NASA administrator for eight years, credited Nichols’ trip with the idea to apply. Mae Jemison, the first African American female astronaut, often cited Nichols as an inspiration.
As a result of her tour, people such as Sally Ride, Judith Resnik, Frederick Gregory and Ronald McNair became astronauts.
(I might have tried it too, Ms. Nichols, growing up loving the stars and planets and constellations, though I couldn’t see much from my Brooklyn apartment. But even though the body was ready, the calculus was weak. I had to cross other roads.)
I 2011 interview with Nichols, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said that thanks to her efforts, the space shuttle program was the first American astronaut program to better represent America.
Yes, the astronauts are the ones who did the tests, trained their bodies, made the sacrifices and flew among the stars. But everything that flies has wind under its wings.
Nichols helped provide that wind, first to a television show and concept that grew into a multimillion-dollar global franchise, and then to the real-life space organization that could, eventually, figure out how the Starship build that fictional.
His presence and encouragement let us know that we were all there in the future. Don’t worry about not being there. Of course you are there. Just be ready to work it when it’s your turn.
She changed what we as humans thought was possible. There is no greater gift that a performer can give.
If there is an afterlife, I hope Nimoy takes a few minutes to reawaken Nichols with poetry. And this time, they both spend some time laughing.